NEW YORK – Urging graduates to repair "the public conversation" and rescue society from "grim careerists and ideologues," playwright Tony Kushner on Friday accepted the honorary degree that had briefly been withheld by the city's university system after a trustee accused him of being anti-Israel.
Alluding to the controversy, Kushner said that the honorary doctorate would remain "the most interesting one I had to work hardest to get" and praised the forces that led to his receiving the honor.
"Behind it there stands a shining community of people, of spirits of whom I'm proud to be able to call myself kindred ... who believe in the necessity of honest exchanges of ideas and opinions, who understand that life is a struggle to synthesize, to find a balance between responsibility and freedom, strategy and truth, survival and ethical humanity," the playwright said.
The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York voted last month to deny the degree at the urging of trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who denounced the playwright's views on Israel and branded Kushner "a Jewish anti-Semite" and a "kapo," a term for Jews who worked for the Nazis in concentration camps.
Wiesenfeld said Kushner had accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing." He didn't quote directly from Kushner's writings but cited statements from Kushner that he attributed to the website of Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist who angered many Jewish groups with his book "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering."
Kushner said Wiesenfeld had distorted his position and objected that he was given no chance to present his own views. The playwright has said that while he's been critical of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza, he unconditionally supports Israel's right to exist.
Amid an onslaught of criticism, CUNY reversed the decision. Critics including The New York Times editorial board called for Wiesenfeld to resign, while some conservative organizations came out in his support.
On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize winner told new graduates of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that they, too, must engage with society's thorniest issues and urged them to "find the human in yourself by finding the citizen in yourself, the activist, the hero in yourself."
Saying they faced a "beset and besieged world" where slavery masquerades as freedom, Kushner urged them to respond to the planet's cries for help.
"There's injustice everywhere. There's artificial scarcity everywhere. There's desperate human need, poverty and untreated illness and exploitation everywhere," he said. "Everywhere in the world is in need of repair, so fix it. Solve these things."
Outside the graduation ceremonies, a handful of protesters gathered to denounce Kushner's selection as speaker in a public university.
Marvin Belsky, a member of the Zionist Organization of America, argued that while Kushner had distinguished himself as an artist, the degree was "a political honor, a political symbol."
"When he says he's for Israel, that's a mockery," he said.
Kushner won a Pulitzer in 1993 for "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," and received accolades for his pieces "Homebody/Kabul," and the Broadway musical "Caroline, or Change."
He drew fire as co-writer of the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film "Munich," which some critics claimed demonized Israel in a story of vengeance following the bloody hostage-taking by Palestinian terrorists in the 1972 Olympics.
Kushner responded to the criticism in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, saying: "I think it's the refusal of the film to reduce the Mideast controversy, and the problematics of terrorism and counterterrorism, to sound bites and spin that has brought forth charges of 'moral equivalence' from people whose politics are best served by simple morality tales."
Samantha Gross can be reached at www.twitter.com/samanthagross